What exactly is empathy? And how do we offer empathy to others? According to Marshall Rosenberg, empathy is giving your full attention to what another is feeling & needing in a given moment. When we are empathizing we attune to what another is feeling & needing. We really connect to this person’s internal state, whatever the pain is within them, without judging or trying to change their experience. This may seem simple enough, but many times we aren’t giving or receiving actual empathy. I like to refer to Brene´Brown’s explanation of empathy illustrated in this cartoon:
You can see how rather than offering true empathy, we often follow the strong urge we have to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feelings.
What Empathy is Not
Any phrase that begins with “at least”
Years ago a dear friend of mine died in a car accident & I have remained close with her family. I, once, asked her mother if there was ever anything that anyone said to her that actually made her feel better. She was very clear in her response that nothing anyone could ever say would be able to lessen the pain of losing a child. And she thanked me for not trying to change her feelings, but for just being there with her and sharing in her sorrow. She had a particularly hard time hearing things like, “at least she is in a better place” or “at least she wasn’t your only child” or “this was just God’s plan for her.” Just as Brene´ Brown mentions in her explanation, any response that begins with “at least” is not empathy.
Empathy is not sympathy.
When we sympathize with someone, we have compassion for that person. We might say “I feel sad you’re going through this painful experience right now.” This is more of an expression of regret for the struggle or difficulty that person is feeling. When we offer sympathy we are talking about ourselves and our feelings, which takes the focus away from what is going on within the other person. Empathy is offering our full attention on what is going on within another person. After empathic connection we can offer sympathy but it is more useful if the empathy comes first.
Despite our best intentions, offering advice is not empathizing. Giving advice is our way of trying to make it better or lessen the pain, but by doing this we move away from the difficult feeling (usually because of our own discomfort) and interject our ideas of how to feel differently. Advice certainly has it’s place, but can be better received after connecting empathically.
When we say “I understand” we are expressing our intellectual understanding of their experience rather than demonstrating understanding through attuning to what is present within them in that moment. Sometimes just being quiet is a demonstration of understanding, which for many of us requires letting go of the discomfort we experience in silence.
How to Offer Empathy
Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication model suggests that the components of empathy are those things we need in order to stay connected with another. In order to maintain connection with others we need the following:
1. Full Presence
Staying present with what someone else is feeling and needing in that moment. This is difficult at times because our own feelings, thoughts, and reactions often come up when sharing in another’s experience. Rather than focusing on our own internal state, we redirect our attention to the other person and can attend to our own feelings at a later time if needed.
2. Focus on the Now
We are able to stay better connected in the present moment by not bringing up things from the past or getting distracted with intellectual understandings or explanations.
3. Focus on Feelings and Needs
It is easy to get caught up in the story or drama of what is happening with others, but this pulls us out of the feelings and the internal experience. It is more effective to connect to the feelings and needs that might be behind thoughts, words, or stories.
Brene´Brown also provides the following components for empathizing:
1. Perspective Taking
2. Staying out of Judgement
3. Recognizing Emotion in Other People
4. Communicating that Feeling with People
Brown explains that we try to make others feel better because it’s vulnerable to access those difficult feelings in ourselves, but what actually helps is sitting with someone in their struggle, sharing in their pain, allowing for it to be there without changing or judging it. Empathy involves emptying our mind, putting our own needs aside, and listening to others with our whole being.
I enjoy sharing this clip from Modern Family where Phil is learning how to offer empathy (or how not to) to his wife, Claire. It can be a humorous reminder of how we can easily insert our own ideas of what we think another may need rather than meeting them where they are in their experience and offering true empathy.